Flashback to 2002: I am afraid of the ocean.
My then-boyfriend (now husband) and I took a trip to one of those all-inclusive resorts in Cancun. They offered lots of free activities like sand volleyball, dance classes and water sports. On a sunny day, hoping to have a bit of fun, we decided to snorkel. It was a disaster.
I was only in about 6 feet of warm, shark-free water with my boyfriend nearby and yet, I really freaked out. I panicked thinking these 3 things:
I’ve never swum in the ocean.
I am not a very good swimmer.
I might drown.
By the end of the trip, although I’d made several attempts to snorkel, I was afraid of the ocean. It’s vastness and power were overwhelming and scary to me.
Fast-forward to 2017: I am with my besties about to take a surf lesson in California.
My friend Michele decided to celebrate her birthday with a girlfriend trip to Laguna Beach and she wanted to learn how to surf, all of us joining her for a lesson. By now, I am quite comfortable with swimming and have a pretty good level of fitness. Or so, I thought.
After a few drills on the beach, our instructors lead us into the water casually tossing out this seemingly critical piece of information I wished I’d know before this moment:
“You all know how to swim, right? Because surfing is 90% paddling.”
Just getting out to the “outside”, the place beyond the first break of waves, I was out of breath and starting to feel very anxious. I was a terrible paddler.
“What happens if I spend all of my energy paddling like hell and catch a wave, only to fall off. How am I going to get back on my board, deal with waves crashing on me, AND paddle back to the outside?” I thought to myself.
I realized that as fun and easy as our Ken-doll-like instructors made it look, I was unprepared for this.
My panicky self decided surfing was too dangerous since I was not a strong swimmer. I spent the majority of my lesson riding the board on my belly on the way to the shore. And huffing and puffing all the oxygen I could gasp each time I paddled back out to join the group.
I had feelings similar to my previous experience: I was fearfully in awe of the strength of the ocean.
So then, how did I get to Costa Rica and become a surfer?
An intention, the right mindset, and a plan with lots of support.
In spite my experience in the big, cold waves off the California coast, I still wanted to be a surfer. I set my intention to learn how to surf somewhere warm, with smaller waves, with more than just one lesson. Brilliant, eh?
When I signed up for a yoga retreat in Costa Rica, I saw that surf lessons were offered. When I mentioned my desire to learn to surf to my friend, Kim, the retreat host, she was very encouraging. She said that the ocean there was warm and friendly, as were the Costa Rican instructors:
“they make it so easy”
“you practice on baby waves.”
Baby waves sounded like my speed.
Since I live in the non-ocean area of deep West Texas, I realized that to prepare for surfing, I would need to practice in a different way.
I saw that there were some gaps in my training program. I was taking yoga and strength training, but just being flexible and strong was not enough. I needed cardio endurance and more confidence in the water. I signed up for swim lessons and I added some cardio training at the gym.
My swim trainer was actually a children’s swim lesson instructor. So he took me gently through the basics with lots of encouragement. He said “there are three things you can do with water: swallow it, choke on it or spit it out.” It sounds a bit drastic, but that actually demystified swimming and gave me a greater feeling of control.
I learned about buoyancy, drag and using my energy efficiency in the water. He even taught me how to properly tread water. All of this made me feel safe and much better prepared.
My first lessons in the summer of 2017 were exactly what I hoped for. I had a great instructor who took me step by step through the motions of surfing. Each day, I practiced what I learned from the day before and learned just a little something new.
Best of all, no paddling! The instructor, in an effort to help you feel successful and have fun, would do most of the work to position you just right, and we were in chest-high water, also known as the “baby wave” zone.
This year, I went back for more lessons this summer. But not before, I re-committed to my intention. I visualized myself getting up easily and riding the board. Every week, I drilled on the “get up” on the tumbling mats at my gym. I focused on my strength training exercises for my core and legs. And I added plenty of drills for cardio endurance. I wanted my lungs in good shape this time.
In this second round of lessons, I was starting to get a better feel for the board and could “make” my rides more often. My instructor was very encouraging, always giving me feedback immediately after my attempts.
I also rested a lot. Even I tried to prepare myself physically for the demands of being in the ocean, surfing is still a vigorous sport - carrying your surfboard, pushing against the waves as you walk out in the water, pushing up and getting on top of the board, and this time, there was a bit of paddling. The lessons were about an hour and half long, and we would take a short break under the palm trees. I also spaced out my lessons so I had rest days in between.
I noticed my mindset was shifting. I was no longer wondering or worrying about the ocean, but instead, my lessons felt more like play, like being a kid again.
In preparation for my last surfing trip the past November, I told my trainer what I planned to do, so we could tailor my workouts to prepare. I may have looked silly but I practiced my “pop-up” maneuver every time I finished a workout. I ramped up my nutrition specifically to support my gym time, and to support my muscle growth.
I continued with yoga but this time dedicating myself to visualizations during meditation. I imagined how the board felt as I pushed it to the waves. I saw in my mind the shoreline as I was up on my board, riding the wave. Any chance I got, I travelled in my mind’s eye to the ocean in Costa Rica and saw myself there being a surfer.
When I finally got there, I could tell it was going to be different because I was different.
I had changed. I no longer thought “the ocean is trying to kill me” but instead “the ocean is my playground.” I did not think “I don’t know how to swim,” but rather, “I am ready for this.”
I had built the skills, the confidence and had huge support. I was there as a surfwear model to help my friend Nora launch her new line of surf wear for women of all sizes with a great tribe of women cheering me on.
My favorite memory from that trip is one of transformation - how I was no longer an ocean-fearing surfing wannabe.
On one of my rides, I finally put together all of the individual skills that my surf instructors had been showing me over these two years. I was able to choose a wave, get set up on my board properly, paddle to position myself to catch the wave, pop and make the ride - all on my own, without my instructor, without any panic. Just pure knowing, I was a surfer.
It was beyond exhilarating! This time the ocean left me breathless for all the right reasons.